He heard it on the grapevine

One man's quest for native song has yielded a staggering archive.
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In The world of blues music Alan Lomax is a colossus. But the instrument for which he is famous is not the 12-string guitar or the harmonica, but the tape recorder. A retired American academic, Lomax made the first field recordings of Muddy Waters in the 1930s. Legend has it that around that time his recording of a plea for clemency by Leadbelly - when one of the original bluesmen was serving time for manslaughter - so moved a Louisiana penitentiary governor that he was pardoned.

Now, 60 years later, Lomax's place in the annals of recorded music is assured with the release of a collection of more than 100 CDs of native song from around the world - the result of his lifelong devotion to seeking out the traditional music of peoples from Ireland to Italy and Jackson to Japan, and preserving it on tape. It's an extraordinary achievement, and arguably the most important archive of its kind in the history of recorded sound.

It all began in the early 1930s, when an already blues-obsessed teenager joined his father, an English professor at the University of Texas, on ventures into southern states where they could satisfy what was then considered a peculiar interest - for whites, at any rate - in the music of rural blacks. They took their primitive recording equipment to the plantations, churches and prisons of an impoverished region segregated by the Jim Crow laws.

Though their cumbersome machines - early versions weighed as much as 500lbs - hardly made them inconspicuous, the two men were able to communicate to the artists that what they were doing was "their gift to the world". Even in the earliest days, though, the Lomaxes did not limit themselves to southern black music. John Lomax, fascinated by cowboy songs, recorded white hillbillies. Father and son went to the Caribbean. Alan's interest then became worldwide. Thanks to teaching posts at Columbia University in New York and then at nearby Hunter College, he devoted more than 60 years and several books to gathering these sounds and exploring the connections between them.

For decades the Lomax recordings have been known only to visitors to the huge archive housed at Hunter College. But thanks to a leading independent record label in the States, a wider audience can now sample such sounds as earthy weaving songs by traditional English and Scottish folk singers, stirring dance music from Spain, and almost stereotypically romantic crooning from Italian peasants. Such is the scale of The Alan Lomax Collection - essentially a collaboration between Lomax's family, his associates, and Rounder Records - that releasing it all is expected to take five years.

On the basis that not all music fans are as eclectic in their tastes as the Lomaxes, the series will be divided into groups such as the Italian, the Caribbean and the Spanish collection, in addition to the many volumes culled from their travels to the Deep South. There will also be a collection of recordings from as far afield as Eastern Europe and Japan, while a 38-track sampler giving a taste of many of the styles is already available.

Lomax, who now lives in Florida and is in poor health following a stroke, has had the torch carried for him by his daughter, Anna Lomax Chairetakis. Having accompanied him on trips and acted as co-producer of the collection, she believes that the appeal of the project goes beyond a passing interest in world music. "A lot of young people have a natural interest in the roots of their culture," she says.

Bill Nowlin, one of the Rounder founders and co-ordinator of the series, is not banking on huge sales. But he is sufficiently committed to the project to have pursued Lomax with the idea for more than a decade before - he believes - the veteran collector started to think about his legacy.

Although Lomax himself can't play a full role in the project, he appeared sufficiently perceptive at the launch of the series earlier this year to start objecting when Spencer Moore - a Virginia tobacco farmer and one of the few surviving artists featured in the recordings - drifted in his performance away from "the true path" towards the mainstream.

Although a purist to the end, Lomax would probably not be too troubled by the updating of the sounds he discovered. As long ago as the 1950s Lomax was making stereo recordings in the field, while more recently he developed what he called the "global jukebox", an interactive museum devoted to the music and dance of the world for which he collected no fewer than 4,000 songs. But then, as his daughter says, "He had a huge vision. He was trying to change the world."

Lomax summed up what motivated him in an interview prior to his stroke: "I found out that what I was really doing was giving an avenue for people to express themselves and tell their side of the story." Civilisation is indebted to him.

A sampler from `The Alan Lomax Collection' (Rounder Records) is available now, along with the first five volumes of Lomax's Deep South recordings, `Southern Journey'.